The month of February has served up a tale of despair for Arsenal in recent years and the next few days could see an eerie sense of déjà vu descend on Arsene Wenger and his players.
In previous seasons, the reluctance of Wenger to splash the cash in the January transfer window has been quickly followed by disastrous results for his team. Since 2007, the month of February has played host to Champions League defeats to Munich, FC Porto and AC Milan, while they have also had FA Cup dreams shattered in unexpected fashion and lost two League Cup finals.
Add to that a long list of Premier League setbacks in February and an alarming pattern has developed at this time of the year for a manager who could be forgiven for looking at their upcoming fixture list and wondering if history is about to repeat itself.
The Gunners’ 5-1 hammering against Liverpool at Anfield last weekend suggested the February blues may be about to depress Wenger and his team once again this year, with this Sunday’s FA Cup rematch against the Reds and the Champions League clash with Bayern Munich next Wednesday offering peril and opportunity in equal measure.
“If you look at the games we have coming up, it’s clear that we are entering a crucial few weeks,” said Wenger, whose hopes of ending his nine-year wait for a major trophy could be shattered again should Arsenal slip up again in February. “When you have runs of games like this and every one is crucial, but I feel we are in a different place as a team both mentally and physically than we have been in other seasons.
“There is a maturity in this team now that we did not have in the last few years and we have seen that many times in the last few months. Many times questions have been asked, but we have found the answers and I’m certain we will do the same now. We have plenty of big games and that means the whole squad will need to be highly focused for every match. This will be a massive challenge for the squad, but I’m confident we can do it.”
Injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott are not helping the Arsenal cause, while the fatigue that appears to be affecting club record signing Mesut Ozil and star striker Olivier Giroud are also a concern for Wenger, who has seen his side emerge from six months of optimism into a cloud of pessimism at the most important phase of the season.
With Wenger planning to rest key players in the FA Cup clash with Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, the depth of the Arsenal squad is set to be tested to the fullest, but the Gunners boss believes his support players are ready to prove their worth.
“The difference this year is our consistency is not just in the first part of this season, but over the course of a year and more and that shows we are a team that has taken strides forward,” Wenger argued. “Until we win something or until we sustain the challenge we have made this season, people will question us, but in the past we had a team that would self-destruct if we had a bad week. I don’t see that happening now.
“Also, we had a summer last year where we did not sell any of our big players and instead added one in Ozil. This changed the mentality from feeling we are behind the teams with the money to feeling we are ready to compete with them. I am convinced we will do it, but my belief is not enough. The team need to believe, which I am sure they do, and then we have to prove it on the pitch. We have tough games, but let’s see it as a challenge.”
Wenger has built up enough good will during the first half of his Arsenal tenure to ensure he will be given a chance to finish the job his impressively revived team have started. However, the doubts that have always lingered around this side are about to be examined and as Wenger looks to negotiate his 18th February as Arsenal manager, a repeat of the misery this month has brought him down the years simply must be avoided.
Should Arsenal reach March 1 with their trophy hopes alive in three competitions, Wenger will have ended a curse that has undermined his hopes for far too long. Alternatively, the continuation of the Gunners’ February nightmares may be too much for many of the club’s supporters to accept.